Constitutional Issues Raised By The Case of The Elkhart 4

In previous articles we have looked at the text of the Indiana Felony Murder Rule.  Specifically, our article Is Curtis Hill Using the Case of The Elkhart 4 to Expand the Felony Murder Rule in Indiana, focuses on this law.  In that article we stressed our concern with the ambiguous wording of the law.  In today’s article we are going to look at possible constitutional issues raised by the ambiguous wording and application of the felony murder law in the case of The Elkhart 4.  This is the text of the Indiana law that was used to convict The Elkhart 4, “A person who kills another human being while committing or attempting to commit arson, burglary, child molesting, consumer product tampering, criminal deviate conduct, kidnapping, rape, robbery, human trafficking, promotion of human trafficking, sexual trafficking of a minor or carjacking . . . commits murder, a felony.”

This is the wording of the Indiana Felony Murder law, the law that was used to convict Blake Layman, Levi Sparks, Anthony Sharp and Jose Quiroz in the death of their co-perpetrator Danzele Johnson.  One of the main issues surrounding the case of The Elkhart 4 is the fact that Blake, Levi, Anthony and Jose did not kill anyone.  The homeowner in this case did the actual killing.

In a recent TV Interview Ryan Dvorak, an Indiana State Representative, said, “If you actually read the statue, the language of the statute probably would not apply to the kids in this case.”  Mr. Dvorak is a member of the Courts and Criminal Code Committee of the Indiana House of Representatives.

For a criminal law to be fairly applied it needs to be easily understood by most people when read.  In the US  Constitution the fifth and fourteenth amendments set out due process of criminal law.  One of the aspects of due process is void for vagueness.  The void for vagueness section of due process  “requires criminal laws to be drafted in language that is clear enough for the average person to comprehend.”

In the case of The Elkhart 4 this is a significant concern.  An Indiana State Representative, Ryan Dvorak, has publicly admitted that upon reading it is not clear that the law as written applies to the Elkhart 4.  At the start of jury selection in the trial, Elkhart County Prosecutors described the felony murder law to potential jurors.  Jury selection had to go late into the evening.  One TV station (WSBT) reported, “Several potential jurors had a hard time with the charges against the boys.  Some of them didn’t understand how the teenagers could be tried for murder if they didn’t pull the trigger on the gun that killed their friend.”

If an Indiana State Representative who is on the Courts and Criminal Code Committee and a group of jurors after a lecture from the government lawyers are not able to understand how this law was applied in this case, how can the state expect 16 year old kids to understand the law?

The Government of Indiana has a constitutional obligation to ensure that the laws of the state are extremely clear.  “When individuals are left uncertain by the wording of an imprecise statute, the law becomes a standardless trap for the unwary.”   The writing of laws a very serious responsibility that the legislature has.  It needs to ensure laws are clear because the consequences of not understanding poorly written laws are drastic, as evidenced in the case of The Elkhart 4.

We believe that The Elkhart 4 have a good constitutional argument for their appeal based on how the wording fails to reflect what actually happened in this case.   Furthermore,  we believe that if the Indiana State Legislature wants to charge felony murder in the way the Elkhart 4 were charged, it needs to rewrite the law to avoid this vagueness.  There are other states, such as Florida, that have similar laws that are very clear in the way they are worded.  We, of course,  would rather the state get rid of felony murder altogether.   But if it is going to keep the law, it has an obligation to the citizens of the state to ensure the law is clear enough for the “average” person to understand.


Ryan Dvorak’s State Legislature page

The interview with Ryan Dvorak where he talks about the law

Jury Selection at the trial of Blake Layman, Anthony Sharp and Levi Sparks

More Information about Void For Vagueness and Due Process